Transcendental Springfield

Lives of quiet desperation

I've long been a fan of Henry David Thoreau, the guy famous for checking out to live in the woods.

"Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in," he once wrote.

His meaning seemed clear at last week's two-politician confab at Citizens Club in downtown, a place where far too many Vietnam-era parking meters front far too many empty shops that bustled during Eisenhower's time.

Last week wasn't the first occasion that Sangamon County Board Chairman Andy Van Meter and Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder have met at Citizens Club. Last year, they bristled over Capital Township. This time, they talked about accomplishments and what's in store for 2020.

It wasn't much encouraging, vision-thing wise.

Economic development? Nothing much to report. "It's a lot like fishing," Van Meter said. "You sit there and sit there and suddenly you get a bite." Langfelder was equally inspiring when someone south of 30 asked what the city can offer for young folks. "I say, 'Go away, have your fun, but when it's time to raise a family, come back to Springfield,'" the mayor said.

Afterward, Van Meter wasn't much impressed. "How can you keep them down on the farm once they've seen gay Paris?" the chairman asked. "I think we want to be a community that people don't want to leave."

Van Meter's jibes at the city were thinly veiled. He told the audience that commercial electric rates charged by City Water, Light and Power are too high. Nearly in the same breath, he touted EmberClear, a proposed Pawnee power plant fueled by natural gas that proponents say would produce a lot more power for a lot less money than CWLP. At $1 billion, he said, it would be the largest construction project in Sangamon County history.

Afterward, Van Meter repeated his complaint about electric rates being prohibitive. It makes our economic development plan difficult to execute, he told me. What is our economic development plan, I asked. "Get more business," Van Meter answered.


The mayor told me he's done a lot and his record speaks for itself, but the list of accomplishments hardly sings. Under economic development, the list on a handout available on the city's website includes an underground water retention project beneath the Y Block that no one can see, a proposed downtown hotel that's shown no sign of progress since the city approved a subsidy on the eve of last spring's election and a plaza built by an association of real estate agents, adding more open space to a downtown that has plenty. Other accomplishments touted by the mayor included increasing CWLP cash reserves and installing Shotspotter technology to help cops pinpoint gunfire.

I couldn't help thinking: If I were a business owner considering a move to Springfield and seeing this, I'd think twice.

"Looking Ahead To 2020, The City of Springfield Will Remain Focused." Focused? That's what it said on the handout that also lists what's to come. Nothing about Pillsbury Mill. Workforce development, with no specifics. Downtown university initiative, with no specifics. Affordable housing development strategy, with no specifics. Transitional housing action plan, with no specifics. Kids give Santa Claus clearer blueprints.

I was a few minutes late to the discussion, owing to trouble with one-way streets – after all these years, it's still weird — while searching for a parking space. I could have parked in the garage next to the Hoogland where Langfelder and Van Meter spoke, but the sign said $5, which seemed like a lot. The mayor gave me a pro tip: Park at the Y block. "There's free parking over there," Langfelder revealed. "You just pull up, there's no meters." What about replacing meters that require quarters no one carries anymore? The city, the mayor told me, is holding a public forum next month on parking, one-way streets and downtown beautification. Pro tip: Take a fact-finding trip to Decatur or Normal, where downtown parking is free.

Van Meter said he's frustrated by a lack of downtown planning that includes possibilities in the event Third Street tracks eventually move. Langfelder brightened when I reminded him that he once suggested replacing trains with a trolley between North Grand and South Grand avenues. "I still love that idea," he said. And I like the idea of rechristening our imaginary second lake: Let's call it Walden Pond, so we'll be reminded to live deliberately.

And let's consider hiring a city manager, an idea that some folks say should be on the ballot next fall. No knock on Langfelder, but it's worth considering whether we'd have more continuity and giddyup if we put a city manager in charge instead of handing reins to a new mayor every four or eight years. Van Meter told me he's heard the talk and has no position, but nonetheless says that the county, essentially, already has a manager. "I'm just a figurehead," he told me. The mayor says no. "The best form of government is what we have now," Langfelder said.

Let's prove it.

Contact Bruce Rushton at

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